Four Shortage Strikes Nation

The New York Times reports on crippling shortfalls in the nation’s strategic four reserve:

‘With regular gas in New York City at a near-record $4.40 a gallon, station managers are rummaging through their storage closets in search of extra 4s to display on their pumps. Many are coming up short… “Typically, we have a lot of 9s and 1s, and we had a shortage of 3s before we got a lot of 3s in,” Mr. Nair said.’

Welcome to the world of frequency distribution. The popularity of different letters is familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Wheel of Fortune, as well as anyone who’s ever seen a Linotype keyboard (where the confounding qwerty is replaced by the ranked-by-popularity etaoin shrdlu.) But numbers, counterinituitively, have their own frequencies as well: a simple example of this is to write out the numbers from one to twenty, and notice that while most digits are used twice, the two appears thrice, and the one appears twelve times.

Different applications have their own unique frequency fingerprints. North American area codes traditionally favor zeroes and ones, retail prices favor fours and nines ($49.99); Golan Levin and Jonathan Feinberg explored the topic beautifully in their Java applet The Secret Lives of Numbers. There’s also a lot of occult numerology in the background of our Numbers collection, in which everything from cash register receipts to monuments reveals something about the culture of numbers. Of course, gas pumps are in there too, fours and all. And fives. And sixes… —JH


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